Rakhee Ghelani

Business Consultant, Writer and Traveller

Class or crass: India's Middle Class

One of the biggest culture shocks I am now experiencing relates to what is considered to be “class” or behaviour that represents economic and social status.  It isn’t something I saw much of when I was backpacking, but now that I am settled into a rather middle class life in Mumbai, I am really struggling with what appears to be considered appropriate behaviour amongst the middle class here compared to what I have grown up with in Australia.

Sitting in a restaurant enjoying a Thai meal the other day with a new friend I helped myself to a second serve of rice.  My friend did not.  He made a big deal of waving his arms around and calling out loudly for the waiter from the other side of the room to come over and serve him his rice. My friend has fully functioning limbs and was perfectly capable of serving himself. Coming from a very laid back middle class Australian background my instant reaction was extreme embarrassment and I wanted to ask “Are your hands broken?”.  Of course, it’s a new friendship so I maintained my composure and just stayed quiet.

A few days later, at another dinner with another new friend exactly the same thing happened.  Apparently demanding someone else serve you is considered to be “good class” here.  I consider it poor taste and cringe worthy, particularly because it seems to be done with a fair bit of fanfare, as if a point is being made to put the server “in their place”. Here the cultural divide between those who have and those who have less is becoming very apparent, if you have more it seems to be your role to make sure those who have less know it and feel demeaned.

Ok, asking a waiter to serve you in a restaurant is a pretty small deal, but it’s not the actual request that offends me but the way in which it is requested.  I have observed this behaviour quite a lot in the past few weeks and it always feels like it’s a way of keeping someone else down. I don’t know how else to explain it.

So now I sit in restaurants and observe, and without fail on most tables there is someone waving their arm frantically or yelling out to the staff, sending food back several times and demanding to speak to chefs and managers to tell them how they should be doing it.  Don’t get me wrong, I have sent meals back in Australia and asked to speak to the manager when something is sub-standard, but it’s always done with some humility and a large dose of embarrassment.  It’s not the thing to do unless something is very wrong with the meal, and it’s certainly considered ill taste to make a big deal of it. Unfortunately every time I see it being done here, it is an Indian doing it to another Indian, foreigners don’t seem to behave that way and Indians certainly don’t treat the foreigners (usually the owners) in the restaurants that way.

Unfortunately, these observations extend past service in restaurants and into the home. Listening to people talk about how their staff (ie. Cleaners, cooks, drivers) will “take advantage” of them if they give them a little leeway makes me feel quite ill, and is something I have observed not just in India but in other expat communities in other parts of the world (like Africa).  To put it in context, I pay about $17 a month for a lovely lady to come to my house 7 days a week for an hour and half and clean all my dishes, sweep the floor, mop the floor, clean bathrooms and tidy up the house.  She has no set day off.  So when I hear people talk about their maid taking advantage of them because they want a day off whilst they sip their Rs150 ($3) coffees in air-conditioned cafes, all I can think is who exactly is taking advantage of whom here?

When did someone lose the right to have a day off, particularly when they perform back-breaking work for a pitiful sum of money.  Let’s not forget, most of the “support staff” have full access to the house, they see what expensive items are there and are well aware of how little they are paid (I am very ashamed to say that my imported breakfast cereal costs me more in a month than my maid!).

Yes it is simple economics of supply and demand.  People are willing to work for the price they are paid, I don’t argue against this, but the attitude that they are taking advantage of someone who is clearly able to pay them more and in a much better position than them really grates against my personal morals. I don’t see any gratitude for the work that is done, or being grateful just to be able to afford help.  In Australia I had a house-cleaner that came once a fortnight for an hour and half (for which I paid $75 a visit) and I was eternally grateful to them. I can’t even describe how fortunate I feel now that I don’t have to clean anything in my house.  For this I thank our maid every time I see her.

The more I talk to people here, the more it becomes apparent there is an almost complete disregard for those who are less fortunate.  For example, I was talking to one person about my daily walks in Bandra and how the middle class walkers along the new beach paths never seemed to look out to the bay, which is where many are bathing, washing their clothes, going to the toilet, basically living daily life.  They just looked at me and said “Oh we don’t look at that, you won’t notice it soon either.  Just ignore those people”.

So those who “have” choose to ignore those who don’t have unless they need to use them for something (like to clean their house or drive them to the station), and in the process it appears that they have managed to dehumanise them in their minds. I hear the “haves” refer to the “have nots” as “these people”, dissociating them as a different group from themselves.  Once someone is no longer considered to be like you, then its a small step to forgetting they are human altogether and with that disappears the need to treat them with respect. So behaving rudely and brashly towards them is then almost justified because “they” no longer  require you to treat them as human.

I know what I am saying sounds harsh, and I am sure it won’t win me any friends and may perhaps lose me some, but this is what I have observed and it makes me feel very sad. Sad that I see wonderful people treat others so badly and that I think they really don’t see it themselves and actually feel justified in doing so.

So as I try to fit into my new home, I am terrified.  Terrified that one day I will walk down the street and no longer see all the people who are there. Terrified that I may feel like I need to compromise my personal values to fit in, or worse still find my values have been conditioned and changed.  Will I be able to continue to swallow my pride and show some class towards my new friends and not say a word when they behave in a way that they consider appropriate but I do not.

I read this article recently about an Indian who had moved from the US, and after 2 years was so distressed by the behaviours they were demonstrating that they moved back to the US.  I already relate to everything the writer talks about and its a challenge that I am not sure I have seen anyone overcome as yet.

I just hope I can retain my own personal beliefs and treat everyone I come across with the dignity and respect that they deserve.  Whilst I want to assimilate into my new life, I don’t think I am ready to leave me behind just yet.

41 comments on “Class or crass: India's Middle Class

  1. Pingback: Happy Anniversary to Me : 2 Years Living in Bombay | Rakhee Ghelani

  2. post-this-if-u-dare
    September 13, 2013

    You cringe at the behavior of some of these Indians, but why is it that you are ready to go with the drift and pay your maid that measly amount. When your sense of righteousness didn’t kick in, how can you expect people who have been born and brought in a setting like that to act otherwise. Never good to take a moral highground because you never know when someone else might yank that lush carpet woven with your own self-righteous thought bubbles from under your feet.

    I have been living in Australia for the couple of years, despite this image of an egalitarian country, I am just amazed by the level of selfishness of the people here, so visible in the venom spilt out against refugees. Australia’s a just a new settler colony with a tiny population sitting on a huge landmass of resource pile, so they can delude themselves about being fair dinkum egalitarians, cooking their barbies in the backyards.

    Live in a country that has been around five millenia and is now smouldering under centuries of decay of great civilisations, you will understand history and circumstance are a bigger determinant of etiquette and character than individual choice. And btw, I imagine if there was a civil war in a neighbouring country, you would never hear the kind of absolute venom towards refugees from the Indian state that you hear from your hypocritical Australian pollies. The millions of Afghan, Iranian, Tibetan, Burmese refugees in India are a testament to that.

    • Rakhee Ghelani
      September 13, 2013

      I can feel your anger about the refugee policies in Australia, and whilst it has nothing to do with the post I have written, I can say I understand it and I do not in any way condone those policies.

      But refugees is not the topic that I wrote about here, it is rather about the behaviour of the middle class in India. This post was written a long time ago when I was living in a share house and unable to pay my maid more without causing issues in my domestic situation. I have since moved out on my own and now pay what I believe is fair to my new maid, I also pay her to take the weekend off.

      • post-this-if-u-dare
        September 14, 2013

        You seemed to imply that their attitude jarred with your sensibilities being brought up in a more egalitarian Australia where you are used to helping yourself in a restaurant and not talking down to waiters. But what I am trying to say is that this is not indicative of a greater egalitarianism in Australia and the case of vilification of refugees was just to highlight how flimsy that veneer of egalitarianism actually is, whatever the individual behaviour of its citizens, you will never hear that kind of vile rhetoric from the Indian state. Yes, the crass behaviour of most nouveau riche Indians is perhaps unparalleled, on any flight into new delhi, if you hear a loud intoxicated voice demanding an extra drink, and chuckling at the air hostess, guess what, 9 times out of 10, it’s our friendly marwari merchants from a trip to bangkok. Now the greater point is not that Australians are hypocrites or middle-class Indians are obnoxious class-ists with a sense of entitlement, of course they are, but these mass character traits are merely symptomatic of the larger structural conditions of their societies. Indians’ obsession with status and prestige in an unforgiving cauldron simmering with class divisions, each willing to grind the nose of the one lower into the ground, and Australians at the end of a colonial era hysterical about being overtaken by non-whites. Don’t get me wrong, my complaints with this class of Indians are a legion, but I say analyse them from within the constraints of their own milieu, not by comparing them with some faux-civilised and enlightened Westerner stereotype, that really gets my knickers in a knot. But I get a feeling you have moved on from your previous stance, and hence I shall stop my moral outrage tirade here, get enough of that on A Current Affair already and Herald Sun ;) (btw I can’t believe Herald Sun is published and read as a legitimate newspaper in OZ).

        • whateveryousaysilly
          May 4, 2014

          You are enraged because someone is pointing out your faults. Not because according to you the author is “faux-civilized”. What, you mean you and Indians are “real-civilized”?

          Madeup words can’t hide your rot. Grow a brain. This is the same pretentious, righteous, devious crap that makes you and other Indians crass, not class. And remain so.

  3. Pingback: Keeping the Poor Down: India’s Growth Strategy « Rakhee Ghelani

  4. Sapna
    July 5, 2012

    A very well-written post and equally well-written comments.

  5. Formerly Anon
    July 4, 2012

    What we see in life is almost entirely dependent on our conditioned mind. This guy sees a very different society than what someone like you would:

    There marriage as an institution had collapsed entirely, to the extent that no child, except if it were of Indian subcontinental descent, was born legitimate. What had replaced marriage was a kind of Brownian motion of the affections: couples came together and split up in an almost random fashion.

  6. Vikas
    June 16, 2012

    An excellent post which is further reinforced by the quality of feedback by both Indians and expats. I will not try and argue most of the points made against the so called middle class people, instead urge you to give some concrete suggestions to correct this so called social behavior. There is no harm in correcting someone and teaching him civil courtesies. When a person goes to a badly kept restaurant with dirty tables and floors, you can choose to ignore and move to another eating place or politely request them to clean it. Similarly, I would request you to politely correct the person and tell him the right thing to do. It is not so much about Indian attitude than it is about basic civil behavior. I have regularly seen rude and contempt among American and European people towards Indians. That does not necessarily brand them racist. The Indian problem is more to do with lack of education and excessive population devaluing the value of humans. Overall an excellent post which brings out problem which we face as we grow as a country.

  7. gardenerat60
    June 12, 2012

    We are a heartless society. I have seen middle class ,who had struggled, put on airs,and order people about. It shows their own self worth or lack of it.
    It is necessary to be human, when dealing with people less fortunate then you. But it is fast disappearing here.

  8. boston123
    May 27, 2012

    I think there might be a short and long term economic motivation here too. In the US, waiters and temporary help in many cases are using the job to pay the bills, while they pursue other activities( college, acting, writing etc..). As a customer I can picture my own kids doing a similar job, to be self sufficient; and also it is possible that this ‘waiter’ may be way above me on the societal food chain, one day… Do I really want to mistreat someone like this?

    And finally, the concept of the poor enjoying the same things in life as the rich… the feel of a sea breeze, falling in love, or simply being treated with dignity …. is not something people reflect upon very often in India.

  9. lynegen
    May 16, 2012

    I think there are two different dynamics going on.

    First: The Expat Community
    As you mentioned there are Expats who do complain – especially about their maids. This seems to be a common theme within the expat community. At least there are several blog posts by expats (residing in different countries) which highlight the complaints they have. I personally don´t understand those posts, since it´s very simple to get rid of the problem: cleaning one´s house/apartment, cooking, taking care of the kids all alone.
    I don´t want to go further detail, because this topic angers me too much!

    Second: The Indian Society
    As written by many others: the Indian society is very hierarchical and the “class differences” seem to be ingrained.
    However, I´d like to mention another thought – which is, I think, similar with what thefoaminthewaves wrote, namely that especially in societies which are undergoing enormous changes and where people are confronted with the possibility to climb up (or down!!!) in the hierarchie (as it is possible in India due to the economic growth) people have to deal with a lot of insecurities. And to fight them, they try to reinforce their current status. This is especially easy by putting people down: being disrespectful is their way to prove to themselves that they are (still) in a position to do so, or that they “made it” to such a position.

    I think this idea belongs to the theories about “societal/cultural permeability”…

    • Rakhee Ghelani
      May 17, 2012

      Thanks for your comments. Yes expats do complain about their staff and it makes me mad too…. how quickly people forget that very few have help like that in the West.

      Yes the change in social structure is an interesting comment and I suspect you are right in that it has quite a bit to do with the behavior that I have observed.

  10. Leonie Greenwood
    May 15, 2012

    Wow, Rahkee, the quality of replies from your readers is so intelligent. It is a pleasure to read your blog and the feedback.

  11. Apu
    May 14, 2012

    Very interesting post. I do agree that class is ingrained in us – how to treat each person comes to us in very unconscious ways. The stinging on paying the maid while shelling out for fancy dinners, bugs me too, and I take care to pay well above the market rate, besides additional help for children’s tuitions. However, certain things could also be a cultural thing – for e.g. calling the waiter to serve – while there is certainly no need to do it rudely, it is often done simply because Indian (or Chinese food – the second most popular eat out option in India) tends to be messy as well as shared – unlike in Western restaurents where each person just orders their own plate. You don’t want to drip the dal makhani or chinese sauces over a fancy restaurant’s tablecloth – this is one reason I often prefer the waiter to serve.

    • Rakhee Ghelani
      May 16, 2012

      Ah yes a very valid point indeed, I make such a mess when I eat usually :-)

  12. Ram sampat
    May 14, 2012

    The words which caught my eyes were “appropriate behaviour amongst the middle class”

    I feel there is no appropriate behavior and there is no middle class .

    How did you classify your new “friend” as middle class? what is middle class/low class/high class?

    So Appropriate behavior would be
    a) Self service (today i was helping my self and the waiter comes running to server me )
    b) some humility and a large dose of embarrassment ( i do not complain at all . I just write a stinker online , so that would me make what class? high/low :) )

    who exactly is taking advantage of whom here? Good question!
    Almost complete disregard for those who are less fortunate.

    let us see you give $17 a month/935 rupees to your maid and she has no set day off.
    Is this the same rate other “middle class” people pay their maids. is no days off normal? or just what the middle class do ?


    • Rakhee Ghelani
      May 15, 2012

      Thanks for your comments

      I am not going to address all of your questions because they are clearly defensive in nature. I will say a couple of things though:

      – I don’t just write a ‘stinker online’, people who know me personally know I rarely hold back in my opinion, and yes I have discussed with a few of these friends my thoughts on their behavior.

      – as for the treatment of my maid, as mentioned previously I have moved into a share house and am not solely in control of what she is paid or her working hours.

  13. Descriptions
    May 10, 2012

    I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now and I really like how you think and express yourself.

    It’s hard not to generalize when you’re dealing with the numbers we have here in India because its very difficult to pin-point attitudes and draw parallels in the diversity that is India. That being said, every “Class” has its share of “Crass” members and every community has its fair share of misbehaving morons. While not every Indian abuses their “inferiors”, many Indians across socio-economic groups, will abuse whoever it takes, to come out on top. Similarly, there are fair numbers of Indian who go out of their way to help others and who are polite, honest,well-mannered. The thumb rule in India is, don’t generalize, just observe, note and store for future reference. Treat every individual based on what you’ve observed of them, don’t listen to any stereotypes and avoid forming stereotypical opinions of Indians based on gender, class, religion, community, caste or professionals. I know it’s confusing, but judge each for his own worth and you’ll understand what I mean.

    • Rakhee Ghelani
      May 10, 2012

      Thanks, yes I agree judge each for their own. Here I have just discussed my observations, but I do agree it’s not everyone. Also just because one treats another as inferior doesn’t mean I haven’t been shown great kindness by the same people.

  14. maximumcitymadam
    May 9, 2012

    Could not agree more. I am the editor of expat mag/newsletter Chalo. Can we run this article?

  15. Sunil
    May 9, 2012

    Amazingly true…nice observations…keep going

  16. dhillan
    May 9, 2012

    I had this economic balance argument with my sister the other day, when i decided to tip a door-keeper 25 rupees, and she said “that upsets the economic balance”. That went on for a while, and safe to say i convinced her of the legitimacy of my actions. My question to you being…If the cost of your breakfast cereal embarrasses you, and stands as an indicator of misplaced value in a social system…why don’t you pay your maid more? You certainly sound like you can afford more than $17 a month. If you can, then why not?

    Yes, others may not be able to pay, etc…but if you can, shouldn’t you? It’s a personal, one-to-one thing that you can do to make ONE worker’s life more comfortable. Doesn’t that stand for something.

    P.s. This is not an assault. I enjoy your blog, i’m subscribed to it in fact.

    • Rakhee Ghelani
      May 9, 2012

      Thanks for your comments and insights. In response to your question, I live in a share house and don’t wish to cause friction in my household at present. Also I am actually unemployed at present and living off savings, so technically I can’t really afford the maid either but I don’t wish to put her out of a job.

  17. thefoaminthewaves
    May 8, 2012

    To start off, your blog is an amazing read! I just discovered it and I love the way you narrate your introspection on life in India.

    I was raised outside India, but my connections to the homeland were never tethered as my family planned annual visits of a month’s time till I graduated from school. This allowed me to observe India from the viewpoint of an outsider, yet with intricate knowledge of the culture and traditions of the place (my hometown is Calcutta). That said, I am able to empathize with you to a great degree on the issues you have discussed here.

    My reasoning behind this sort of behavior from the ‘upper’ middle-class Indians is the simple fact that they have money. In a country like India, where poverty is ubiquitous, it can be assumed that anybody with sufficient money would consider themselves to have achieved ‘success’ in life. This success is something that Indians (in general) cannot help but show off and boast about. Taking up the restaurant issue that you have written about here, it is quite common to see such behavior among the aforementioned class of Indians. It reminds me of the behavior of my own father at a restaurant, but before that let me introduce you to him. My dad grew up in India in a family that could earn enough to just satisfy their hunger and the need for basic amenities. Oh, and ‘basic amenities’ definitely did not include higher education. My dad was academically quite bright and used this quality to tutor school-going students so that he could fund his own higher education. He worked endlessly to ensure that his sons (my brother and I) would never have to worry about the lack of money. Admittedly, he has come a long way from home, now serving as the Vice-President of a major firm in Delhi. This success is something that he is not just proud of but, unfortunately, overly so. One night, while we were living in the UAE, we went out to dine at a Chinese restaurant. We were served peanuts to munch on before the food was ready to be served. To my horror, my dad picked up a handful of the unshelled peanuts, rubbed them between his palms to remove the peel, and just blew the peels on to the floor. Embarrassed, I asked him why he did that, but his reply of “so what?” only added to my embarrassment. Knowing my dad, I knew it would be pointless to argue as he never admits his mistakes, so I just took a tissue paper and hand-picked the peels off the floor.

    I guess what I’m trying to convey here is that many of these ‘upper’ middle-class people come from families that were once economically classified as being on the borderline of the lower and middle classes. The fact that they now own houses and cars not only makes them complacent about their achievements, but also gives them a reason to show it off as much as they can.

    Just another delve into the mindset of the Indian man, whom you find difficult to comprehend.

    • Rakhee Ghelani
      May 9, 2012

      Thank you for your comments and your candidness. Your story illustrates some of the issues here so well.

  18. ravan
    May 8, 2012

    You are very different from the confused guy who wrote the NYT blogticle – in that you seem to be sure of what you are. That being said if you yet have not met anyone in India who can see people separate from events, do not think generalized and is not afraid to wash own dishes then you should seriously consider a circle shift. Open your eyes and look around. There are quite a few of us families who live life without dehumanizing our employees etc.

    • Rakhee Ghelani
      May 8, 2012

      Thanks for your comments. Yes I agree that there are many who treat others with respect. My observations thus far have seen only a few but that said, I am still very new to town and just starting to integrate. No doubt my observations will continue to change over time.

  19. uglywords
    May 8, 2012

    I’ve been observing your blog posts for the last few weeks, and I get the feeling you’re missing the point entirely, if you don’t mind me saying so.

    Yes, people should be kind and considerate to anyone in their vicinity – in principle. But we all know this isn’t the case, even in the West. The kind of attitude you are talking about is not just middle class behaviour – and mind you there are many levels of the middle class in India, and each will condescend to the other lower ones as a matter of exerting their hierarchy.

    The problem here is a cultural setup. I could very well point out that my building maintenance guy chews paan and spits next to me the whole time we’re talking – that’s rude and disgusting. Every time I catch a local bus or train, I’m pushed and shoved every which way by people who want to get the best seats. Don’t even get me started about people jumping queues. And of course the groping or leering women go through.

    None of these are specifically a ‘middle class’ phenomenon, and it would be unfair of me to go, “These crass low-class uncivilised people! Someone should teach them some manners.” It’s beyond manners and dehumanisation; it has to do with a society that does not really value individualism. Regardless of what it says in the Constitution, individual ‘rights’ as you see in the West do not work here, because we have never had an Enlightenment movement or a revolution of ideas that buck the traditional mindset and push for a progressive, liberal life. What we are left with post-independence are collectivist pockets of race, religion, caste, language, each of which unfortunately has learned to interact with the others using superiority or inferiority. And we have also learned to see each other as products of the collective – a girl lives down the street is a Christian girl, lower socio-economic status, speaking Konkani — she’s a part of collectives, not an individual. It’s part and parcel of our mindset to see it that way because we are not an individualist society, and it will take us a long time to value an individual as someone who deserves respect for who s/he is.

    So, I think it’s wrong to generalise the middle-class and say there’s a complete disregard for the less-fortunate. I come from a family that doesn’t treat its hired help like shit and tries to help them wherever it can without it becoming charity, but you have to understand that broad changes need to happen at a socio-political level. Till then, the individual becomes cynical and learns to ignore what s/he does not want to see. Otherwise what would the other option be, to simply stand there watching, as people live out their daily ablutions in front of us?

    I think you need to step out of the moral judgment and see this as a wider cultural phenomenon – India has had a long tradition of master-servant culture, even through the British Raj, and it’s not going to change in a few decades. In addition, when governance is a fallacy and there are no universal changes to payscale, ensuring no such thing as basic pay across all strata of society, no universal healthcare, no welfare benefits or public housing, there are a lot of issues that cannot be simply solved through the goodness of our hearts or Slumdog Millionaire-type blogs.

    I’m not saying it’s okay to dehumanise. I’m just saying that there comes a point when you’ve grown up seeing this over and over again, that you cannot afford to despair each time something bothers you.

    • Rakhee Ghelani
      May 8, 2012

      Thanks for your comments. I am not sure I have missed the point completely, it is after all my observations and opinion, but I do appreciate your thoughts and take them on board.

      I find your thoughts that India does not value individualism interesting, as to me it has felt like it is a very individualist society in some ways (but also very collective in the ways you have mentioned). Individualist in the way everyone fends for themselves, you have to move out of the way because no one will do it for you, you have to push to get on and off the train because no one will get out of your way… that kind of thing.

      Yes change takes time, and I am not seeking to solve the problems here in my blog, I am just recording my observations as I see them.

      On a final note, I find your last comment sad: “I’m just saying that there comes a point when you’ve grown up seeing this over and over again, that you cannot afford to despair each time something bothers you.”… becoming conditioned not to care or despair… that is what terrifies me.

      • uglywords
        May 10, 2012

        In saying you’ve missed the point, what I meant was that for the longest time, elite India has been going “Oh these crass, uncouth lower class”, and now you’ve flipped the coin and are going “These crass elitist snobs”. Neither viewpoint is valid ALL the time. Not even most of the time. And to generalise on either side of the argument is dangerous. You’re entitled to your opinion, but a generalisation is a dangerous opinion.

        For the record, I don’t worry you’ll be inhuman or indifferent to the poor in India, I’m actually worried you’ll lump the attitudes of all middle class India against all of the economically deprived India. It’s not helpful to polarise. Crassness exceeds beyond class and socioeconomic status. Just as decent behaviour exceeds beyond them too.

        Poverty in India is no longer a social issue, it’s a political one. Is it possible for one of the fastest rising economies in the world to ‘accidentally’ be unable to lift nearly half its population out of poverty? It’s not, it’s a deliberate omission. The politicians in this country have thrived in keeping groups of poor who serve as a convenient vote bank. A political leader’s star rises when s/he pits him/herself as the people’s hero and offers solutions, and once elected does too little to keep them dissatisfied enough to vote for him/her again. It’s a political tactic that has worked for decades again and again – and the biggest voting turnouts in India are from the poor, socio-economically backward classes who keep hoping for change, while the educated elite hardly vote. I don’t say this as some paranoid conspiracy theorist, but as someone who’s aware that major political commentators have observed and criticised this. The best person to read is P. Sainath whose “Everybody Loves A Good Drought” strongly indicts all of India’s politicians. And who predicted the urgency in rising farmer suicides a decade before they received national importance.

        Poverty is politics in India, and this is how it runs.

        And I’m sorry, but as long as governments swallow public funds (like the Mayawati exposé that came out in the news yesterday – she’s used over 80 crores of public funds for her home renovation, and she’ll most likely go unpunished), citizens cannot consistently keep themselves emotionally involved in futile volunteerism or philanthropy. I’d rather be an indifferent so-so optimist than a burned-out cynic with no hope.

        • Rakhee Ghelani
          May 10, 2012

          I do hear what you are saying, and I agree that not everyone falls into one bucket or the other. I see shades of grey, I am just writing down my observations.

          I agree that poverty is politics here and the corruption and waste of government money is disgusting to watch when so many are in need.

          I feel sad that you see volunteerism and philanthropy as futile, if you can help one then that is one less person suffering.

  20. Desi Aussie
    May 8, 2012

    Every word is true. But I just have one question, how are you dealing with beggars on your travels and walks? Have you yet dehumanized them( most preferred way, look away or look through them as if they don’t exist)?….. well people like me who do that aren’t heartless, its just a coping mechanism when you face something like that day-in day-out.Whatever you have raised your article is somewhat extension of that, esp ‘these people’ part.

    The waiter waving thing can be explained in caste terms which is so ingrained in us that it is a way ‘ to put people in place’, a way of reasserting the hierarchy.

    • Rakhee Ghelani
      May 8, 2012

      Thanks for your comments. I have talked about beggars before a few months ago here and yes I have struggled with this issue. I don’t ignore people, but I also generally don’t give either.

      I take your point about the coping mechanism, it does make sense.

  21. Melanie
    May 8, 2012

    I understand completely how you feel and have had the same “feelings” when in similar situations in Chennai. And have also been warned by Indians not to trust my house cleaner, driver, or even the watchmen as they will surely rob me or take advantage of me. And I too am very uncomfortable with such generalizations as it is certainly not how I was taught to think or treat people.

    Now having said this, the lady who cleaned my house asked me for money less than a week after she started, and also complained about the work she was doing, the new watchman asked me for money and had yet to introduce himself to me and my driver and my car mysteriously disappeared for several days without so much as a call to let me know where he was only to reappear a week later with the explanation that he had a family emergency. And no apology, something that would be completely unacceptable where I was raised (Canada).

    To your point about worrying you will change and become desensitized or perhaps jaded after some time in India, well I wouldn’t worry about this, it sounds to me like you were raised well, you are smart and kind and have a good head on your shoulders.

    Perhaps this is a great opportunity to practice what Mahatma Gandhi famously said “Be the change you want to see in the world”, maybe instead of saying anything to your new friends you could show them a better way? I’m just saying….if it worked for Gandhi who are we to question him?

  22. Varun Chandramohan
    May 8, 2012

    Its really a nice write up. I agree with most of the things you said. But you must understand everything is not so black and white. For instance, the example of how the middle class treats the house-keepers can be argued from another point of view. A well treated house help tends to misuse the kindness bestowed upon them and start taking advantage of the situation. Taking a few days off in a month does not bother me atleast, but when it goes to extreme of not showing up and not doing job properly, I think a point has to made. However cutting their salary is not the way. I believe they must be made aware that you are noticing their poor work and given them chance to improve. If not termination is not wrong. I understand what you mean, but it must be seen with an angle that since disadvantaged they are all good and all those who are well off and bad. Balance is the key. :-)

  23. Bharani Shivakumar
    May 8, 2012

    Loved reading every bit of it.

  24. anjeneyan
    May 8, 2012

    It is easy to become immune to the grinding poverty we see all around us on a 24/7 basis. It is somewhat like a medical practitioner who detaches himself from the trauma and pain of his patients. This is a harsh reality all of us have realized and is perhaps the price for staying in a country like India with its vast contradictions, which have co-existed all down the centuries.

    Still, it is hard not to feel pain and anguish when we see half clad children playing at road signals and begging for food or money. We see the faces of our own children in them and shut our eyes to avoid further pain.

    Our Indian educations lays stress on gathering information and reproducing them without linking them to knowledge or awareness of outside world. So we find literate individuals behaving crassly in public places leading us to believe that the linkage to education in the real sense of the term is missing somewhere.

    Your blog illustrates what we have seen but not observed with keen eyes.

    • Rakhee Ghelani
      May 8, 2012

      Thanks for your honest comments. I have wondered if part of it is a way of “coping” with the contradictions that are the reality of living in India. I really appreciate your thoughts.

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